Florida Wildlife Expedition Looks to the Future

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One hundred days after leaving the tip of the Everglades, the four members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition paddled into Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and became the star attraction on Earth Day. We look at the future of their mission - to create a wildlife corridor stretching the length of the state.

It's one day before the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is set to end. The members have pushed themselves to the limit for three months, and it's time to relax with a dip on a remote stretch of the Suwanee River.

"Nice to have a little down time before we enter the Okefenokee," says expedition leader Carlton Ward Jr.

Just then the skies opened on us on the banks of the Suwanee. These guys took it in stride - after all, they've been exposed to the elements for ever day since January 16th. That's when they began their 1,000-mile, 100-day trek, leaving from the tip of the Everglades.

The day after the deluge was Earth Day -- when the four members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition paddled into Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and ended their journey

Their mission - to create a wildlife corridor stretching the length of the state - is far from complete. But on the day I caught up with them, they were in a reflective mood, looking back on the trip.

When asked to recall an indelible scene etched on his memory, Ward drew a word picture of sunrise at a barn on the Creek Ranch in Osceola County, halfway through the mission.

"Kind of one by one, pickup trucks with horse trailers started to pull in, and we had 20 friends who had assembled from around the state who believed in what we were doing, and ride with us, and lead on on a 17-mile journey up to the Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve," he says.

"And to realize that on fairly short order, these people believed enough in what we were doing to give that much of their time to come share it with us was really humbling, and one of the things I'll never forget."

It was also time Ward to reflect on what they have yet to accomplish.

"It's very important to carry forward the conversation with all the different interest groups - the people who depend on public lands for their hunting," he says.

"The people who do motor sports and fishing and all different activities. There's kind of a common ground and importance to protecting these public places. But unless you get the buy-in and support from lots of different people, you're going to have trouble getting the consensus to go forward."

They're waiting at this remote spot on the upper Suwanee to meet Michael Fay, who's done this kind of grand adventure before.

"I'm Elam Stoltzfus, glad to meet you. Thank you so much for coming and welcome to the expedition. This is great. This is like wow, I'm back in the woods already. I'm Mallory. Hi."

Fay is an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic - one of the sponsors of the expedition. In 1997, he walked a 2,000-mile corridor through the African jungle, in Congo and Gabon. The "Megatransect" project helped create 13 national parks in Gabon. He hopes for a similar outcome here in Florida.

"If you look at the history of protected areas in general, they're always islands of the best of the best or places that humans hadn't colonized yet," Fay says. "But I think as time goes on, and people's notion of ecology and ecosystems evolve - even at a political level - I think the notion of corridors starts to make more sense."

The next day, they're greeted by family and friends at the remote Stephen Foster State Park, tucked inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

One of the speakers at the Earth Day event was Tom Hoctor. He's a professor at the University of Florida and was instrumental in starting the expedition. Hoctor has been working with state officials on establishing wildife corridors for two decades.

"One of the things we're planning to do is to make clear is that there is a set of Florida Forever projects that go all the way from Everglades National Park, all the way to Okefenokee," says Hoctor. "That if we had the money in Florida Forever - and those projects were funded - the corridor would be essentially complete."

But Hoctor expects land development pressures to pick up once the economy kick starts, so the clock is ticking.

"Because Florida is - much of it is a peninsula," he says, "it lends it to the concept that all it takes is a little bit of too much development to fragment these unique ecological systems that Florida has.

And as a band played "Old Folks at Home," (Way Down upon the Suwanee River...)

Ward reminisced on the people he's counted on since leaving the Everglades in the dead of winter.

"I couldn't pick a better group of friends and experts to spend time with and to help be the ambassadors for this story. And in a way it just came together," he says. "Each of us brings certain strengths and connections, and we help make each other better and help keep this thing alive, I hope."

Carlton Ward plans to join Joe Guthrie and work on tracking bear movements in southern Florida. He'll then try to find ways to help expand the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the creation of a similar effort along Fisheating Creek, just north of the Everglades.

Joe Guthrie plans to continue his research on black bears for the University of Kentucky.

And in a way, the work of Elam Stoltzfus is just beginning. He'll be indoors for a change, starting work on producing a two-hour documentary on the trip that will air on public television stations early next year.

Mallory Lykes Dimmitt
will go to quite a different scene - Telluride, deep in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, to continue her work on the Nature Conservancy's Colorado Plateau initiative.

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